Abstract of a Sermon Preached on Ocober 23, 1999
For years I regarded loyalty as a very questionable virtue. I have seen too much of loyalty at the expense of faithfulness. Loyalty seems to be regarded as the chief virtue by some, and everything else is sacrificed to it. Loyalty to the Convention, for example, is the leading principle of many of the Southern Baptists, and that loyalty of course extends to supporting the programs and schools of the Convention, many of which are modernistic in doctrine, and practically wicked. Loyalty to the schools which people have attended is also very common, long after those schools have become compromised, or apostate. Seeing such an application of loyalty has not recommended the thing to me, and I have regarded loyalty as such with a good deal of suspicion. It seems often to be nothing more than an excuse for unfaithfulness.
Further meditation, however, and I may add, further experience, have taught me better, and I have come to see that loyalty is a virtue indeed. Like most other virtues, it may be abused, or put to a wrong use, but still, loyalty is a virtue. I believe loyalty to be a virtue because it is the natural fruit of another virtue, namely, gratitude. Gratitude I suppose to be the rarest of virtues in these days of pride and self-seeking, and indeed I suppose gratitude to be much more rare than loyalty. This, because loyalty may flow from other things besides gratitude. Loyalty may be the fruit of pride or bigotry, or stubborn belligerence, as well as gratitude. In that case it is no virtue at all.
But here I aim to speak of loyalty as a virtue. And first it behooves us to define what loyalty is. I suppose it to be an affectionate attachment to a person, or group of people, which is characterized by a commitment to their persons and a devotion to their interests. This is loyalty, and this is the natural fruit of gratitude. We are loyal to our parents because we are their debtors. We owe them most all we have, in the natural realm. We are loyal to our church because it has blessed us and nurtured our souls. We are loyal to our employer because he has provided us with our bread and butter, or to our employees because they have faithfully served us and our interests. Gratitude requires this of us, and naturally moves us to it.
Yet I see but little of loyalty today, in either the church or the world. A man of business will take up some nobody who needs a job, and carefully train him in the business, bearing with all his blunders, and paying him a good wage besides, till he has made him proficient and profitable. At this point his employer's competitor offers him ten cents an hour more, and he is off in a moment, for a dime an hour. This is the common way of the world, and generally accepted by everybody, but still we think there is something shameful in it. It seems that gratitude would say, I owe all my proficiency in this business to my employer, and I would be worth nothing to his competitor but for his pains and patience with me, and do I not owe something to the man that has made me what I am? Shall I leave him in the lurch for a dime an hour? Thus would gratitude inspire loyalty, and who can doubt that this is a virtue?
But in the place of such loyalty, we see every man seeking his own personal advancement. This is the American way
—-the American dream —-and where personal advancement calls, the voice of loyalty cannot be heard. Worse yet, where loyalty falls before the call of personal advancement, gratitude is dried up from the roots, and the man who ought to be praising his old employer, who has taught him all that he knows, begins rather to find fault. He is compelled to this, in order to justify his course in leaving him.
Worse still, a man is taken on as an employee, and taught the whole trade by his employer, and as soon as he becomes proficient at it, he leaves to set up business for himself, often taking many of his employer's customers with him. We would not pretend that loyalty requires us always to occupy the low place, and never to advance, but it will certainly require us never to injure our benefactors. A man might go into business for himself with his old employer's blessing, and with the determination not to injure him, but who thinks of that in this self-seeking day of ours? Personal advancement is the only principle which most people have, and gratitude and loyalty have no existence in their thoughts.
The same thing appears in the church. A church, or a pastor, takes up an ignorant and carnal young man, and labors with him year after year, leading him by the hand, bearing with all his pride and all his faults, faithfully admonishing him and carefully teaching him the truth, so that it is a simple matter of fact that the young man owes all that he is to that church, or that pastor. But he thinks more highly of himself than he ought to think. He thinks he is entitled to a higher place than he is given there. Personal advancement calls, and loyalty is forgotten. He finds another church, which does not know him so well, and which will therefore make more of him than those who do know him, and he is off in a moment. Loyalty is nothing where personal advancement calls, and where loyalty is cast away, gratitude withers and dies. He must find fault with the pastor who has made him what he is, in order to justify his course in leaving him. He blames his old benefactor very cautiously at first, but he will become more and more bold in it as time progresses. All this I have seen.
And do those who receive such ungrateful souls, who come to them only for personal advancement, do they think they will be any more loyal to them than they were to their former friends? Oh, no. When personal advancement calls again, loyalty will once more be cast away, and gratitude will wither and die. We suppose the real difficulty is that there never was much gratitude in the first place, but whatever there was of it will wither away.
Others are taken up by a good man and a good church, and nurtured and cherished by them, and entrusted with a place of leadership or ministry, and after a while they go off to set up for themselves, usually taking as many of the flock with them as they can. A number of John Wesley's preachers did this, and of course, in the process, found as much fault with John Wesley as they could. This happened often enough that it moved Charles Wesley to remark that his brother always set the wolf to keep the sheep. We suppose that John was not careful enough in the matter. The men he trusted were not so fit as he thought they were. Yet if this were so, they ought to have been so much the more grateful to him, but when is this ever the case? Those who deserve the least are the least grateful when they are given the more. We do not believe it was faithfulness which moved them to leave Wesley, but pride and self-seeking. Wesley is admired and revered today by all but hopeless bigots, and yet these men who owed him all that they had could see only his faults and deficiencies.
Now it must be understood that all of our loyalty must always be to those who are less than perfect. No man is perfect. No church is perfect. Some of course come much closer to it than others, but there is no perfection under the sun, and we have no right to expect it of anyone. A number of years ago a number of the people of this church turned against me, and left us. And though they of course would not say so in express terms, it became quite evident to me that it was their way to relentlessly require perfection of me. One of them took up the text, “a bishop must be blameless,” and interpreted this in the most rigorous fashion, such as would have excluded Peter and Paul from the ministry.
No man is without his faults. No man is without deficiencies. No man has all the gifts of God. No man has mastered every spiritual emotion. No man understands every spiritual experience. If he is strong in one place, he may be weak in another. God knows this, of course, as well as we do, and yet for all that requires his people “to know them which labour among you, and are over you in the Lord, and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love for their work's sake.” (I Thes. 5:12-13). This is gratitude, and its fruit is loyalty.
Loyalty may stem also from simple admiration for the worthy, though they have been no benefactors to ourselves at all, and such loyalty may outshine even that which flows from gratitude. This is a virtue indeed.
And what virtue can shine so bright as this? What virtue can vibrate all the truest emotions of our souls like loyalty? Loyalty to the unworthy man, loyalty to the unworthy cause, may be an unworthy thing, but loyalty to the worthy
—-especially when they are traduced and forsaken, especially when they are afflicted and down-trodden, and especially when that loyalty costs us something —-this is one of the grandest and most noble things on earth. What could be more noble, when Paul must write in II Timothy 1:15, “This thou knowest, that all they which are in Asia be turned away from me,” than to hear him saying in the next verse, “The Lord give mercy unto the house of Onesiphorus; for he oft refreshed me, and was not ashamed of my chain”?
What more noble picture can we find in all the history of the church than of those four noble souls
—-some of them women —-who stood by John Wesley all the hours that he was in the hands of a lawless and murderous mob, sometimes shielding him from the blows of the mob, at other times merely being with him, identifying themselves with the hated man of God, before the eyes of all the world? This is loyalty, and this is grand. They had nothing to gain by this —-nothing on earth, at any rate —-and plenty to lose, but they shall have a great reward in heaven for it.
Such loyalty is a testimony to the worth of the man, or the cause, for which we stand, for true and noble loyalty is no more than devotion and commitment to true and noble worth. Somewhere I read a story of a woman in the confederate states, during the Civil War. When the Union army came marching through her village, she came out on her porch with her broom in her hands, and began to swing away at the whole Union army. The men naturally found cause for great mirth in this, and asked her what she expected to do with that broom. She told them she meant to show what side she was on. Those who have had the good fortune to be born north of the Mason-Dixon Line may look askance at such loyalty, for to be a noble thing, loyalty must be enlisted in a good cause. But the fact is, both sides in the Civil War believed their cause right, while I believe they were both largely in the wrong. But such an example of loyalty, even in a questionable cause, can hardly fail to stir the heart. This is loyalty, and this is noble.
We find another most beautiful example of loyalty in the person of Ruth. Her profession of loyalty to Naomi is certainly one of the most beautiful things in the Bible. “And Ruth said, Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God. Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried: the LORD do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee and me.” (Ruth 1:16-17). Here we see a devotion and a commitment which is most rare, and which really needs no defence. To read this is to approve it
—-to admire it. And all this is the more beautiful because Naomi cannot be supposed to have had any very strong claims of gratitude upon Ruth. She was not a mother, but only a mother-in-law.
And observe, Ruth's loyalty was not for the sake of any personal advancement, but precisely at the expense of it. Her loyalty cost her something. Naomi is most careful to spell out the cost to her. “And Naomi said, Turn again, my daughters: why will ye go with me? are there yet any more sons in my womb, that they may be your husbands? Turn again, my daughters, go your way; for I am too old to have an husband. If I should say, I have hope, if I should have an husband also to night, and should also bear sons, would ye tarry for them till they were grown? would ye stay for them from having husbands? nay, my daughters; for it grieveth me much for your sakes that the hand of the LORD is gone out against me.” (Ruth 1:11-13).
Yet Ruth's devotion and loyalty were determined, and she could not be turned from them by Naomi herself, nor by any personal cost to herself. And it is beautiful to observe the end of all this. Ruth's loyalty was precisely at the expense of her personal advancement, yet she was no loser by it, for there is yet a God in heaven. That loyalty which she maintained at the expense of her personal advancement became in fact the very means of her advancement.
“Then she fell on her face, and bowed herself to the ground, and said unto him, Why have I found grace in thine eyes, that thou shouldest take knowledge of me, seeing I am a stranger? And Boaz answered and said unto her, It hath fully been shewed me, all that thou hast done unto thy mother in law since the death of thine husband, and how thou hast left thy father and thy mother, and the land of thy nativity, and art come unto a people which thou knewest not heretofore. The LORD recompense thy work, and a full reward be given thee of the LORD God of Israel, under whose wings thou art come to trust.” (Ruth 2:10-12). God took notice of her loyalty, and Boaz did also.
But we see another kind of loyalty in Joab. None were so loyal to David as he, but why should he not be? He knew who buttered his bread, and so long as David was the king of Israel, it was in Joab's best interest to be as intensely loyal to him as he could. But when David was about to die, and his worthless son Adonijah had proclaimed himself king, and gained a large and powerful following besides, Joab's loyalty all evaporated, and he showed his true colors, “for Joab had turned after Adonijah, though he turned not after Absalom.” (I Kings 2:28). It was personal interest which kept him loyal to David through all of David's life, and personal interest which turned him from David in the end.
Such loyalty was no virtue while it lasted. The loyalty which is worth the name is that which will be maintained at personal cost. This was the loyalty of the disciples of Christ while he walked this earth. The Lord says to them in Luke 22:28, “Ye are they which have continued with me in my temptations.” “Continued with me.” This is loyalty. “In my temptations.” That is, when I was poor and despised and rejected, when I had not where to lay my head, when you gained nothing by your loyalty, but had rather to share my hard lot.
Well, but loyalty to Christ is one matter, and loyalty to his servants another. Christ has no fault, no deficiency. His servants have many of them. And though loyalty to imperfect men and imperfect churches is a noble and virtuous thing, loyalty may be stretched too far. Loyalty at personal cost is a most noble thing. Loyalty at the expense of personal advancement is a most noble thing. But loyalty at the expense of truth, of principle, of conscience, or of faithfulness to God, is no virtue. There are times, therefore, when loyalty must be sacrificed to faithfulness.
But let it be understood, when such a sacrifice must be made, it ought to be deeply felt to be a sacrifice. The language of the soul ought then to be, “How gladly would I abide here, if I could, but I cannot do so and retain a clear conscience. I love these tabernacles in which I have been blessed. I love these men who have blessed me. How gladly would I stand with them as in times past, but faithfulness to God and truth and conscience requires me to depart. Yet I will not depart cursing them, but blessing them and honoring them as far as I can.” We think it was generally with such a spirit that George Whitefield parted company with John Wesley. He believed truth and conscience called him to it. I believe he was mistaken in that
—-believe that he was wrong, and Wesley right —-believe further that even if he had been right, and Wesley wrong, there was no occasion to separate —-but Whitefield was young and zealous, and young zealots generally much magnify the importance of their opinions. He believed, therefore, that truth and conscience called him to part company with John Wesley, but he never ceased to love him, and to honor him also. It was a painful thing for him to leave Wesley. It was cutting off his right hand, or plucking out his right eye.
But how rarely do we see loyalty thus sacrificed to the higher call of faithfulness. We usually see it cast away, at the baser call of personal advancement, though the higher call of faithfulness is almost sure to be professed as the reason. I have seen enough of this. The disaffected man comes to his pastor and says, You have taught me most of what I know, and made me what I am, but I disagree with you about whether women should wear jewelry
—-or whether faith comes before repentance —-or some other comparative trifle —-and therefore we must part company. Now if these disaffected folks were to tell the simple truth, they would rather say, I am tired of your authority, and believe you do not give me so high a place as I deserve, and therefore I am off to find it where I can. They can hardly sacrifice their loyalty to faithfulness, for they have none to sacrifice. Loyalty does not exist in such hearts, nor gratitude either, and they will usually be found to have as little of faithfulness to God as they have of loyalty to man.
Yet loyalty can be stretched too far. This it was which for years gave me a prejudice against loyalty as such. It appeared to be generally nothing more than an excuse for unfaithfulness, and such loyalty can hardly be too strongly condemned. We must love Christ more than father and mother, more than wife or child, and certainly more than church or pastor. Where the word of God calls, loyalty to every other cause must be sacrificed. We know that bigots and zealots, we know that the proud and the selfish, often suppose that the word of God calls, when they are called by nothing more than their own inflated ego. We know this. But we know also that in some cases it is the word of God, it is the voice of Christ which calls, and to plead loyalty at such a time is only unfaithfulness. We must first render to God what is God's.
And neither would I wish to leave the impression that that loyalty must be sacrificed only where conscience demands it. There are certain things which we might contrive to do without defiling our conscience, which are nevertheless unfaithfulness to our charge. We might perhaps, without defiling our conscience, remain in a church where our children will be corrupted by bad teaching or a bad example. We really have no right to do this. We must render to God what is God's, and our children are God's.
Neither would I pretend that it is always easy to draw the line between loyalty and faithfulness. It may be very difficult. Yet a true heart may certainly do it.
But to conclude. Loyalty at the expense of faithfulness is no virtue. Loyalty at the expense of personal interest is a very great virtue, and as we see in the case of Ruth, is in fact one of the best ways under heaven to secure our personal interest. God may allow the loyal to feel the personal sacrifice involved in their loyalty, for a time, that their loyalty may shine the brighter, but he will reward it also.